George Mason Law School

Burgeoning athletic programs could be unexpected boon to College

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January 22, 2010

12:36 AM

It seems that the biggest news over winter break is the continued success of the College of William and Mary’s men’s basketball team. Though we did lose to Virginia Commonwealth University Wednesday, the basketball team seems determined to replicate our football success.

These two historic seasons have caused observers to think twice about the College, not known for its success in the two most watched college sports. Of course, this is something most of you are already aware of. What you might not know is that a spectacular season in college sports can have a positive effect outside of the athletics department.

There is a surprisingly large body of literature dedicated to determining what effects athletic success might have on a university. One theory, termed “football fever,” argues that athletic success may have a negative effect on graduation rates and education quality as students and faculty might be tempted to put off work in order to watch games. However, most research does not support this premise, including a 2004 study by Irvine Tucker. Tucker compared football success to faculty articles published in economic journals and found no correlation, indicating that professors are not replacing research with watching football.

Other theories argue that athletic success enhances university application rates. The best documented evidence is the “Flutie Effect.” This phenomenon is named after Doug Flutie, the former Boston College quarterback whose 1984 Hail Mary touchdown pass secured a come-from-behind win over the University of Miami and a place in the national spotlight.

After that season, Flutie’s alma mater saw applications increase 30 percent over the next two years. A similar reaction followed George Mason University’s surprise ascension to the Final Four three years ago. Applications there jumped by 22 percent the following year. Media attention most likely caused an increase in name recognition among those preparing to apply to college.

Other studies also show that winning colleges have higher graduation and alumni donation rates. The “football chicken soup” theory contends that a winning team creates greater social cohesion among students who engage in the social activity that goes along with watching games. Thus, they make the transition to college life more easily and are less likely to drop out and more likely to donate in the future, as they remember their college days fondly.

A 2004 research paper attempted to prove a correlation between football and basketball successes and positive effects on a university. The author found that football success, measured in winning percentage, bowl appearances and polls, has a positive effect on graduation rates and alumni donation. While the effects of basketball teams were not found to be significant, having a good basketball team correlates with higher SAT scores among students, which is most likely due to an increased application pool. In fact, all the most recent data suggests that winning teams do have a positive effect on a university overall.

Now, of course, the College is a bit different from most universities, especially those with large athletic programs. We’re still a very long way from March Madness, so I am making no predictions. The College will probably not become an athletic powerhouse, but that doesn’t mean that better sports teams can’t help a school that prides itself on liberal arts education. It’s just one more reason to root for the continued success of all our teams.

E-mail Ed Innace at [email protected]

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